A Conversation with a Lutheran Friend on Justification

I’m having a friendly conversation with a Lutheran seminarian over at www.PaulisCatholic.com. The topic is justification (surprise!!!). Here’s a recent response of mine to him:

As a Catholic, I understand the Greek verb dikaio as juridical AND transformative. A sinner “becomes righteous” and this is why the Greek word was rightly translated as iustificatio—“making just.”

I’m saying that a legal, declarative change is not merely what God does for us. Salvation involves a union with Christ to the sinner and that union transforms the sinner into a new creation.

I was not merely “declared righteous” through faith, rather I “became righteous,” because Christ washed away my original sin and my personal sins so that I was a new creation. Grace filled my soul and the Holy Spirit came upon me. As Saint Paul wrote:

“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21)

We BECOME THE RIGHTEOUSNESS of God. It’s not merely imputed. Luther didn’t do justice to the entire Pauline corpus, in my opinion. He stopped way too short of the glory of justification.

You wrote:

“A Lutheran would say that a perfect righteousness identical to that of Christ, which is recieved through faith (being the first of the cardinal virtues), would be a stronger type of righteousness (if not the only type of righteousness) than anything that could dwell within a more or less sinful man.”

Joseph, that’s the just the rub. If God’s righteousness can’t dwell in a man, how could a sinful man ever enter Heaven? You’ve got to have a transformation/infusion for this whole thing to work. If God’s righteousness is to holy to dwell in a sinner, then how can the sinner ever dwell in God??!!

You wrote:

“The quality of our righteousness and participation is made the qualifications for our eternal life. Why is this necessary to believe?”

Jesus said, “If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned” (Jn 15:6).

I read this (as a Catholic) as saying that if you don’t participate in Christ through union with Him, then you’re going to Hell.

Just a few bits of difference that I picked up from your email:

  • For Catholics, charity, not faith, is the highest of the theological virtues (faith, hope, charity), and faith isn’t a cardinal virtue at all (cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance). This may be a difference with Lutherans. Is it?
  • For Catholics, virtues (e.g. faith, charity, justice) are habits of the soul. This means that for us they are accidents, not substances in the soul.

One final thought. Which is better?:

A) To be married on paper – that is, to be declared married.
B) To experience the union of marriage, being transformed as “one flesh”?

Clearly, matrimony includes both realities. As I understand it, you’re choosing (A) to the exclusion of (B). As a Catholic, I’m saying both (A) and (B). God declares us righteous because He has made us righteous. When a baby is baptized, he is 100% holy.

Looking forward to your response. This is a very helpful dialogue.

In Christ,

Please listen to a related podcast: What did Paul Teach about Justification?

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